Warner Brothers studio filled a special niche during Hollywood's golden years. Their movies were not the most lavish--those were from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer--or the most sophisticated--those were the domain of Paramount. No, the typical Warner's plot, as Woody Allen once described, was a movie where Jimmy Cagney went to the chair and Bette Davis said she would wait for him.
Warner studios specialized in movies that were topical, syncopated and fast, fast, fast. They were shot, acted and cut at a blistering pace. Their dialogue was the sort that crackled. Plots were often taken directly from the headlines, or history books--because then you did not have to pay for story ideas. Or they were disguised remakes. And everything was designed to get the most out of the assembled stock company, which included Davis, Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, George Raft, Olivia de Havilland, Errol Flynn, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Pat O'Brien, Miriam Hopkins, Claude Rains, William Powell, Paul Muni and, later, Joan Crawford, John Garfield and Jane Wyman.
For his new book, "Inside Warner Bros. 1935-1951," Rudy Behlmer had access to the studio's archives. He culled from interoffice memos, production reports, story files and correspondence to create a portrait of a working studio during Hollywood's boom years. He used the same technique with great success for his "Memo From David O. Selznick." That book is not only a standard fixture in every young movie executive's office, it remains the definitive study of a great film producer at work.
However, with this book, Behlmer's method proves thin. Selznick's memos were all-inclusive: He discussed plot, analyzed characters, fussed over dialogue and, most important, constantly reiterated what the picture meant to him and how it compared with his other work. He provided his own perspective.
Here it is Behlmer who must provide the perspective and, although annotations are profuse, how it all fits together remains a bit hazy. Along with an introduction, Behlmer has included a magazine article on Warner Bros. from the December, 1939, Fortune. This article can only begin to suggest the true relationships of Harry M., Jack L. and Albert Warner. (It does contain the book's only mention of Sam, the brother who pushed the company to make talkies--then he died just before the release of "The Jazz Singer.")
While informative, this Fortune article has the tinge of a press release about it. The bitter fights between Harry, the older brother who ran the family and the company, and Jack, the younger brother who ran the studio, are skimmed over, in both the article and the book itself. Jack, who survived Harry by 20 years, reportedly destroyed his brother's papers, which might account for Harry's under-representation in this book.
There are cases where the book does deliver. The studio's insistence on saving money is overwhelming. Director William Wyler's preference for numerous takes created problems during "Jezebel": "Do you think Wyler is mad at Henry Fonda or something. . . . It seems that he is not content to okay anything with Fonda until it has been done 10 or 11 takes. . . . Possibly Wyler likes to see these big numbers on the slate, and maybe we could arrange to have them start at number '6' on each take, then it wouldn't take so long to get up to nine or 10." The relatively speedy Michael Curtiz was not immune: "Also, when he gets to the fight stuff (for 'Adventures of Robin Hood'), please be sure that Mike doesn't over-shoot and get a thousand daffy shots of impossible gags. . . . " Even location shooting comes under scrutiny: "The park sequence is very good but it could have been shot on our lot. . . We spend a fortune building a park at the studio and then everybody wants to go on location."
The evolution of "Casablanca"--a much-chronicled picture--is the most carefully documented--it is also the only movie that seems to rate a synopsis. Using the memos, the contributions of different screenwriters, including Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch and Casey Robinson, can be specifically pinpointed.
The memos and letters of and about Jerry Wald (unfortunately, remembered largely because he was a basis for Sammy Glick, in "What Makes Sammy Run") are the book's most pungent. Wald, a prolific and dynamic producer responsible for such films as "Johnny Belinda," "Humoresque" and "Mildred Pierce," wrote memos that really point up the absolute craziness of the studio system at its height. The kind of system where Jack Warner could write to director Vincent Sherman: "Get in there and finish the picture by next Saturday or before and stop trying for perfection. No one is interested but yourself and I am sure you are not going to pay to see the picture. . . . "